Weekly Witter: Saving the family album

Having already considered about the survival – or not – of the photographs we create today (Will my daughters’ photographs survive for their grandchildren?) I’d like to spare a moment thinking about the older photographs we own: the images of our grandparents and if we are fortunate, their parents and grandparents.

Hundreds of thousands of photographs were brought to surviving community centres.

Last year the Institute of Conservation Photographic Materials Group heard from conservator Ms Yoko Shirawa who spoke movingly about the salvage operation following the earthquake-triggered tsunami that struck Japan in May 2011. Her Government instructed rescue teams to collect albums, loose photographs and memorial objects from the affected areas. Hundreds of thousands of photographs were brought to surviving community centres. Flood water caused stains on the photographs, emulsion to lift away, album pages to stick together and mould. Japanese conservators and volunteers washed, dried and re-housed the photographs. Many photographs were saved, placed in new albums and reunited with their owners or their surviving families – a testament to the sheer hard work of the volunteers and the importance of family memories.

Constanza Mazini, Mrs William Hulton with her daughter Edith Teresa Hulton, later Lady Berwick aged 4 (1894) from Volume 1 of Lady Berwick’s family albums at Attingham Park.

Constanza Mazini, Mrs William Hulton with her daughter Edith Teresa Hulton, later Lady Berwick aged 4 (1894) from Volume 1 of Lady Berwick’s family albums at Attingham Park.

Meanwhile, in a cold but dry storeroom at Attingham Park volunteers worked on the cataloguing and re-housing of six family albums that belonged to Edith Teresa Hulton, Lady Berwick (1890 – 1972) which provide an engaging portrait of her life. Faded the images might be, but the love and affection between Lady Berwick and members of her family are as clear to the onlooker today as they were at the moment they were taken.

Photograph albums have been compiled, used and treasured in households around the world since their introduction in the 1860s. Albums hold the visual memories that their compilers considered important enough to bring together and keep. Albums are enjoyed during their creators’ lifetime and, even when the creator has long gone, his or her concerns and aspirations live on in their collection. Family albums often top the list of priorities when considering what objects to rescue when a house is under threat. Precautions can be taken: avoid keeping albums in basements or attics which can be damp and avoid the lower shelves of bookcases.

Even without the extremes of flooding, photograph albums are often in a gradual state of decline. Whilst the services of a professional conservator are always best there are some simple steps we can take:

  • Handle your albums with care. Try to avoid pulling at the spine or other fragile parts to remove them from a shelf. Take care when opening and closing them because a vacuum can occur when turning pages and on opening that in turn may cause loose prints to tear. 
  • Look out for loose prints. Acid-free photo corners to re-attach them (the kind that are not fixed to the print itself) are better than self-adhesive tapes or glues spread across the back of the prints. Glues can be problematic as they may contain contaminants that cause localised deterioration to prints.
  • Older Victorian albums are often heavy with a decorative cover and metal clasps. Spines and boards may be detached, with loose pages inside. These are best left to a conservator to treat. However a good quality conservation-grade box will keep everything safe from further damage and act as a protective buffer against the external environment. The best environment is cool but dry, and away from light.
  • An album should be regarded as an integral part of the whole artefact yet modern “magnetic albums” with prints held on a sticky pages are particularly damaging to photographs and should be avoided. This type of album fared the worse in the Japanese tsunami.

Conservation-grade photographic storage materials are readily available on-line to the public and well worth the investment. Good quality albums can offer long-term protection as well as a very personal way of showing a collection of images. For further information on caring for family photographs see The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping, Chapter 43.

For advice on finding a conservator, consult the Conservation Register.

  • Anita Bools is the National Trust Adviser on Photographic Materials and Chair of the Institute of Conservation Photographic Materials Group.
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular Monday morning mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.
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